ISS Vanguard Review

13 June 2023
Boldly going where no price tag has gone before

The grey area between board games and RPGs has been a fertile ground for at least a decade now, with Kickstarter giving younger companies an opportunity to join stalwarts Fantasy Flight in the narrative board game sector. What started with the likes of Arkham Horror has developed into fully fledged campaign games, where players can co-operatively take on a deep ‘saveable’ campaign with a group of improvable characters, leaving DM duties to the game itself.

Publisher Awaken Realms has been at the forefront of this trend, following 2019’s Tainted Grail with the arguably even more epic ISS Vanguard. With a box weighing more than five kilograms and a replayable campaign promising up to 60 hours of gameplay, there is an awful lot of game packed into this huge box. But with an RRP well over £150, there needs to be.

In terms of storyline, without giving away any plot spoilers, you’ll find yourself in pretty standard sci-fi territory here. Each play session feels like a Star Trek episode, while the overarching plot is more like an Alastair Reynolds hard sci-fi book. The two mesh together nicely enough, and there’s a nice air of mystery and discovery throughout.

What makes ISS Vanguard so interesting is that there are two very distinct parts to the game that can take similar amounts of time to play. The first sees you exploring a map of locations with up to four characters, reading (or listening to) location descriptions before dealing with situations via skill check dice roles. After this you’ll return to a ship management phase, where you will assign crew members to different sections of ISS Vanguard in a more spreadsheet-style exercise to level up, get new equipment and crew, heal the wounded, and more.

While completely necessary and thematically appropriate, the two parts of the game are jarringly different. There’s nothing to stop any dice-chucking enthusiasts going home early to let the bean counters do their thing. The ship section is an exercise in moving cards between sections of a folder, with section chiefs choosing where to assign crew to get things done. This can be quite crunchy, with some seemingly tough decisions and discussions around priorities which some will love, others less so. It also means you’re likely to be invested in a crew, rather than a single character, which may put some players off.

The away missions are a dicey luck fest that appeals to the ameritrasher in us all. You’ll get a steer as to the kind of skill checks to expect before choosing which crew and equipment to take on the mission, then how smoothly things go is down to the dice. We had missions which saw us sail through without an injury or hiccup, and others where we’d lost all our Medkits and still had a wound before we’d even landed. This kind of play experience is absolute catnip to some groups and the opposite to others, so while the on-ship elements are cleverly implemented you’re also going to need the stomach for a lot of (equally well implemented) random if you’re going to enjoy ISS Vanguard.   

So, to the £150 price tag. There is a massive amount of cardboard in this box and with the small exception of the plastic minis it is all fully functional and required for play. The production quality is impressively high, the iconography largely works well, and while the tutorial is underwhelming to play it does an adequate job of explaining the basics. There’s also a free ISS Vanguard app you can download that adds voice acting to many of the story sections of your explorations, along with some atmospheric music. While we’re not talking Hollywood A-listers, we found it an enjoyable addition.

But does this all justify the price tag? The truth is you’ll need at least one DM to master the game’s AI as there’s an awful lot to manage (there were 500 rules threads on Board Game Geek at our last count). But if your group loves a campaign board game ISS Vanguard is one of the best to date. Just be prepared to lose your fair share of red shirts when the dice do what dice do.

Chris Marling


Try this if you liked Gloomhaven

If you’d have preferred Gloomhaven to have been set in the Star trek universe, ISS Vanguard is for you…

You can buy a copy of Gloomhaven here, or read our review of it here. 

Designer: Andrzej Betkiewicz, Krzysztof Piskorski, and Paweł Samborski

Publisher: Awaken Realms

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Time: 2-4 hours

Players: 1-4

Ages: 13+

Price: £180

What’s in the box?

  • 6 Books
  • 4 Player boards
  • 89 Cardboard tokens
  • 63 Dice
  • 30 Plastic cubes
  • 6 Plastic trays
  • Drawstring bag
  • 28 Cardboard standees
  • 9 Plastic miniatures
  • 350+ Small cards
  • 700+ Standard sized cards
  • 36 Oversized cards
  • 36 Plastic sleeves




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